Opinion | Where Does American Democracy Go From Here?

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On Tuesday, Senator Mitch McConnell, the most powerful Republican in Congress, finally recognized Joe Biden as the president-elect after the Electoral College certified his victory on Monday. “The integrity of our elections remains intact,” Mr. Biden said in a speech after the Electoral College vote. “And so now it is time to turn the page, as we’ve done throughout our history. To unite. To heal.”

It’s a fine thought. But first many Americans will want to inspect the wound: For more than a month now, the Republican Party has helped Mr. Trump wage a campaign to overturn the results of the presidential election. How serious are these schemes — which, if the president’s Twitter feed is any indication, are still ongoing — and how much damage might they do to the integrity of American democracy? Here’s what people are saying.

‘It’s not a coup. It’s not even a bad coup.’

Mr. Trump and his Republican allies have tried to subvert the will of the American people in so many ways that it can be difficult to keep track:

Since well before November, they have sought to cast doubt on the integrity of American elections and disenfranchise voters by weaponizing a false narrative of voter fraud.

They have filed nearly five dozen challenges to the handling, casting and counting of votes in every level of the judiciary in at least eight different states. Perhaps the most high-profile concerned a Supreme Court petition from Texas to overturn election results in four battleground states, which gained formal support from 18 state attorneys general and nearly two-thirds of House Republicans, including the minority leader.

They have tried to throw out hundreds of thousands of votes cast in majority-Black precincts.

They have organized slates of shadow electors in Georgia and Michigan as a means of creating an “alternate” Electoral College tally.

And finally, they have planned to dispute the election on the House floor on Jan. 6, when Congress will meet to formalize the Electoral College results.

Yet all of these efforts have so far failed. As The Times editorial board writes, the electoral system itself has proved remarkably resilient despite the stresses placed on it, including a pandemic and the largest turnout ever recorded. “The votes were counted, sometimes more than once,” the board notes. “The results were certified. In the states that have attracted the particular ire of Mr. Trump and his allies, most officials, including most Republican officials, defended the integrity of the results.”

That includes judicial officials, too, as Daniel Drezner points out in The Washington Post. “For all the fears about the Federalist Society and conservative court-packing,” he writes, “Politico’s Kyle Cheney and Josh Gerstein reported last week that ‘several of the most devastating opinions, both Friday and in recent weeks, have come from conservative judges and, in some federal cases, Trump appointees.’” Perhaps the most decisive defeat for Mr. Trump came from the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Texas lawsuit, which all three of Mr. Trump’s appointees voted to shut down last week.

That decision effectively ended any prospect Mr. Trump had of reversing Mr. Biden’s victory through the courts, and constitutional scholars say the remaining efforts to do so through Congress are also all but certain to fail. “What is happening is not a coup, or even an attempt at a coup,” Dr. Drezner writes. “It is a ham-handed effort to besmirch the election outcome by any easily available means necessary.”

‘Act like this is your first coup, if you want to be sure that it’s also your last’

The incompetence of Mr. Trump’s attempt to subvert the election is not a reason to discount its seriousness, Zeynep Tufekci argues in The Atlantic. The end he seeks may be out of reach, but the means — a mobilization of executive, judicial and legislative power to contest election results, implicitly and explicitly endorsed by one of the country’s two major parties — will now be available to more competent successors.

Consider that of the 249 Republicans in the House and Senate, 220, or 88 percent, refused in a recent survey to acknowledge that Mr. Biden had won the presidency. (Two said that Mr. Trump had won.) And when the Supreme Court handed down its ruling on the Texas lawsuit, the head of the state’s Republican Party suggested that “law-abiding states” secede from the union.

“The next attempt to steal an election may involve a closer election and smarter lawsuits,” she writes. “Imagine the same playbook executed with better decorum, a president exerting pressure that is less crass and issuing tweets that are more polite. If most Republican officials are failing to police this ham-handed attempt at a power grab, how many would resist a smoother, less grossly embarrassing effort?”

“There is an anti-democratic virus that has spread in mainstream Republicanism, among mainstream Republican elected officials,” Dale Ho, director of the Voting Rights Project at the A.C.L.U., told The Times. “And that loss of faith in the machinery of democracy is a much bigger problem than any individual lawsuit.”

It’s also not clear that the damage Mr. Trump did to that faith is reversible, Michelle Goldberg writes in The Times. Other presidents have deceived the country, as anyone who lived through the Iraq War remembers, but Ms. Goldberg argues that Mr. Trump’s insistent and unapologetic fabrication of alternate realities stands unparalleled. “Trump has eviscerated in America any common conception of reality,” she writes. “He leaves behind a nation deranged.”

Several polls have found that a large majority of Republican voters do not believe Mr. Biden’s victory to be legitimate, which raises questions about even the possibility of shared understanding that reconciliation requires. In The Times, Bret Stephens predicts that it could take decades for Americans to understand the damage done to social trust and how to repair it.

“If enough people believe that a government is not elected legitimately, that’s a huge problem for democracy,” Keith A. Darden, a political science professor at American University in Washington, told The Times. “Once reality gets degraded, it’s really hard to get it back.”

Before and beyond ‘Trumpism’

Perhaps asking what damage Mr. Trump has done to American democracy risks putting the question backward. According to the V-Dem institute at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, the Republican Party has indeed grown more illiberal and anti-democratic, having come to more closely resemble authoritarian parties around the world than it does typical center-right ones. But while its retreat from democratic norms may have accelerated under Mr. Trump, researchers say that it began under the Obama administration and coincided with the rise of the Tea Party.

And experts were warning even a decade before that American democracy was showing signs of trouble, as Amanda Taub and Max Fisher have written for The Times. “Constitutional scholars said that the bill was coming due for horse trading compromises the framers had made among one another 200 years earlier,” they explain. “Political scientists said those founders’ had built cracks into the system that had been slowly widening ever since.”

Two such cracks are the Senate and the Electoral College: They have always made American democracy unusually undemocratic, but in recent years they have made it even more so, and in ways that advantage Republicans: The Senate now heavily favors, more than it has before, a minority of voters controlling a majority of the seats, while the Electoral College has become more likely to deny victory to the winner of the popular vote.

The increasingly minoritarian character of these institutions is what made contesting this election possible, as my colleague Jesse Wegman points out. “We came within a hairbreadth of re-electing a man who finished more than seven million votes behind his opponent — and we nearly repeated the shock of 2016, when Donald Trump took office after coming in a distant second in the balloting,” he writes.

The absence of majority rule naturally opens the door to corruption, neglect and abuse of power, Mr. Wegman argues, because a government that doesn’t have to earn the support of a majority or a plurality of its citizens has no incentive to represent their interests or provide for their needs. He notes, for example, how millions of Californians were ignored by Mr. Trump during wildfire season. But the dynamic is also visible in the Senate’s ability to stand athwart popular opinion on all manner of policy issues, from a $15 minimum wage to marijuana legalization to another stimulus check.

Barring a double victory in the Georgia Senate runoffs, at the very least, the Democrats probably won’t be able to make the government more accountable to the popular will. But the result could look less like despotism than further stagnation, a paralyzed politics that produces little beyond an occasional defense bill, tax cut or executive order on immigration here and there.

“It seems so strange to me that people spoke so much of authoritarianism under Trump when what we’ve been seeing for years now, including the Trump years, is political impotence, the absence of political will,” the political theorist Corey Robin told Jewish Currents. “And without the left getting its act together, I don’t see that changing any time soon.”

Do you have a point of view we missed? Email us at [email protected]. Please note your name, age and location in your response, which may be included in the next newsletter.


“The Texas Lawsuit and the Age of Dreampolitik” [The New York Times]

“How Trump Won” [The New York Review of Books]

“Three ways the outgoing president’s post-election fight changed the political landscape” [The Atlantic]

“How Trump’s Judges Got in the Way of Trump” [Politico]

“1918 Germany Has a Warning for America” [The New York Times]


Here’s what readers had to say about the last debate: The battle over Biden’s defense secretary.

Flora: “Biden should select Pete Buttigieg. He served in war. He has administrative experience. He is brilliant with impressive performance in presidential primary debates. The military-industrial complex needs to be dismantled! Austin’s association with Raytheon disqualifies him.”

Stephen: “I recall that Donald Rumsfeld was not a career military man and still did not ask the hard questions about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. He seemed more bent on starting and winning a war there. A civilian secretary of defense is no guarantee of getting to the heart of why we should involve ourselves in war.”

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